Webcam Venus (in collaboration with Addie Wagenknecht)
[NOTE: Mature Content]
“I know it when I see it.”
—US Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, on the elusive definition of hardcore pornography, 1964.
If asked if there is a difference between the Renaissance painting The Birth of Venus (1486) and a Playboy centerfold, most might say it’s no contest: one is art and the other pornography. One is of human ideals, the other smut. Are Botticelli and Hugh Hefner really that different? Both project fantasy and erotic imagery through the media of their day. Both are vehicles of gender politics, defining standards of beauty and sexuality. What if adult performers—already mediated sex objects—struck “classic” poses?
In Webcam Venus, we asked online sexcam performers to replicate iconic works of art. This piece is an experimental homage to both fine art and the lowbrow internet phenomenon of cams. Sexcams use webcams and chat interfaces to connect amateur adult performers with an audience. Users log on to see men, women, transsexuals, couples and groups broadcast their bodies and sexuality live for the public, often performing for money. To create this experiment in high and low brow media, we assumed anonymous handles and spent a few hours each day for a month asking performers: “Would you like to pose for me?”
What is beauty today? By operating in the language of sexcams, we alter the contemporary ideal of beauty with the ubiquitous display of sexuality online. We challenge the institutions which enforce false perceptions of propriety—via nudity in classical painting—as the only form of acceptable safe-for-work beauty. Publicly presented traditional paintings and sculptures are prevalent with sexuality and gender politics, and yet the display of nudity online is usually defined as ‘pornography’. Amateur adult broadcasters also resist the popular, contemporary definition of beauty. They are not the typical definition of beauty prevalent main stream media: heavily Photoshopped image in the name of advertising, which destroys self image and confidence while encouraging materialism. Sexcam performers are the apotheosis of the most honest parts of us and yet typically the least valued part of a society. Even though they are transmitted virtually, they are real people and they are beautiful.
The models are live, and we propose via text chat scroll: “Would you like to pose for me?” or similar. We—like all guests in the cam rooms—only type in limited but sequential lines of text in a chat scroll. The performer can either interact via typing text lines which appear in the chat scroll along with our comments, or speak directly to guests in audible voice. The majority of performers do not speak, even though many have a microphone broadcasting ambient sound like background music. If they respond at all—a lot of hours spent being ignored—we start discussing the pose. We show them an image, either through asking them to do a Google search, or a URL we paste in the chat line. Sometimes we make our avatar profile pic the pose we want so they can click on it directly. They pose, holding for 30-60 seconds. They take direction from us to “correct” their pose. The webcam became the image frame. The performer’s bedrooms or kitchens or bathrooms became the backdrop to these new works and mash-up of histories.
Webcam Venus asks if the obscene can become sacred, if high art is really that high, and how much does context matter for the images we consume? When it launched, several prominent sites politely declined covering the project because of its mature content (which may help explain the project's popularity in other countries where the context for frank sexual discussions is less prohibitive). In addition, the project found objections in our most popular public spaces: Web Comment sections and Facebook.
See the Comment Section at the bottom of Joshua Kopstein's review on The Verge for a debate on whether Webcam Venus is NSFW.
Also see Marina Galperina's article for Animal NY revealing how she was temporarily banned from Facebook for posting images of Webcam Venus.
Webcam Venus is at Internet Week as part of Eyebeam's exhibit. Even though the work was cleared by the organizers, Internet Week placed—unannounced and without consultation—a curtain to hide the piece from view. Google and other major Internet powers were set up right across the way. Did Google censor an internet art piece—in real life?
Webcam Venus on F.A.T. (Free Art and Technology) Lab
Review/Interview by Claire L. Evans on Motherboard
Review by Marina Galperina on ANIMAL
Review by Pau Waelder on Art and Digital Culture/Universitat Oberta de Catalunya (in Spanish)
Interview by Quentin Girard in NEXT Magazine/Libération (in French)
Review by Pauline on Sous la Jupe (in French)
Review by Dr. Giuliana Proietti on Il Sesso e L'Amore (in Italian)
Interview by Stéphanie Vidal on Gaîté Live (Gaîté Lyrique) (in French)
Feature/Interview on L'Oeil de Links (Canal+ Television France) (in French)
"F.A.T. GOLD" at Eyebeam Art + Technology Center, New York. 01-20 April 2013
[Exhibit Review by Kyle Chayka on Hyperallergic]
Click Festival, Helsingør, Denmark. 8-12 May, 2013
"Fast Connection Search: Recent Works from Eyebeam" at Internet Week New York